When preparing for the upcoming Pac-12 college football season, it can be understood why some may glance over the Arizona Wildcats. In a league that has done its best to begin to challenge the SEC for collegiate gridiron dominance, the conference has assembled powerhouses such as Oregon and Stanford to stake their names to. Not to mention, both UCLA and Arizona State are projected in the pre-season top-25 by many syndicated polls. Then there are always the perennial Rose Bowl contenders in the USC Trojans.
Tucson, Arizona may not be the place many expect the Pac-12 Championship Game to be held, but in order for the Wildcats to shock the world and compete in Pasadena, it may not have to be.
On paper, the Wildcats may have the most advantageous schedule of any school within the conference. While they are traveling to both UCLA and Oregon, those are the only two significant challenges the school will face on the road. With only Washington State and Utah serving as the remaining road games inside the conference, home-field advantage during the regular season is a huge edge.
Should Arizona lose the two road games in Pasadena and Eugene, they will still have the opportunity to win the South division and play in the Pac-12 Championship Game. At home this season, they welcome in California, USC, Colorado, Washington and Arizona State. Not a single game listed can be chalked up as a guaranteed victory, but the games will be played in Tucson, where the ‘Cats will have a decided advantage.
With wins in the New Mexico Bowl and the AdvoCare V100 Bowl the past two seasons, head coach Rich Rodriguez will be looking to improve upon that eight win number that has hung over his head through his first two years in the desert.
At the helm, the Wildcats boast a spread offense genius in the man dubbed "Rich Rod." After a dubious stint with the Michigan Wolverines, it seems that given time, the inventive ways of Rodriguez may pay off for the school in ways they could have only hoped when they hired him back in 2011.
While Washington and USC will have turnover at the top, Arizona stands pat behind their signal caller. Entering his third year, Rodriguez will be finally beginning to reap the benefits of his labor.
As savvy as Rodriguez has proven himself to be, he requires a quarterback who can execute his system the way he believes it should be run, a la Pat White, formerly of the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Currently, the quarterback race resembles a log jam. Anu Solomon, a redshirt freshman from Bishop Gorman high school has seemingly separated himself for the time being, although nothing has been written in stone. Also in the mix are Jerrard Randall, Connor Brewer and Jesse Scroggins.
Regardless of who Rodriguez eventually settles on to be his man in the shotgun, there is going to be that hint of doubt, considering the process has taken so long to sort out. In the case of Soloman, there would also be a lack of experience, considering the redshirt freshman's youth and lack of playing time against Pac-12 defense before.
The largest hurdle that will have to be climbed in order for the Arizona Wildcats to be successful this year, will be finding ways to replace Ka'Deem Carey.
Over the past two seasons, Carey has combined for over 3,800 yards-and that is just from rushing the ball. Tacking on an additional 476 yards from his polished receiving skills, and the Wildcats are attempting to replace one of the school's all-time greats. Last season alone, Carey had 375 touches from scrimmage, leading the Pac-12 in that category. His 20 touchdowns in 2013 were just a step down from the 24 times he entered pay dirt back in 2012.
There are an entire slew of running backs vying for carries in the backfield, in which Carey has left a gaping hole. Among those still getting consideration for Rodriguez are Terris Jones-Grigsby, Jared Baker, Adonis Smith, Zach Green, Nick Wilson and Jonathan Haden.
Barring an unforeseen breakout by one of the backs, Rodriguez seems comfortable with letting a "running back by committee" system handle the duties. Much in the same way that the lack of experience at quarterback will be a major concern, the same will hold true in the backfield as the Wildcats will attempt to use six players to fill the shoes of one.
With no pomp and pageantry surrounding a program that many believe will be down in 2014, the Wildcats seem poised to strike at just the right time behind their revolutionary leader. The roads may not end in roses, but the Arizona Wildcats just may open some eyes on their path to it.